Wilson's disease is a genetic disorder in which copper builds up in the body, mainly in the liver and brain. Without any treatment, the build-up of copper can cause serious symptoms. Treatment is with medication to remove the excess copper and/or to prevent a further build-up of copper.
What is Wilson's disease?
Wilson's disease is a condition where too much copper builds up in the body. It is a rare inherited disorder that affects about 1 in 30,000 people. It is named after Dr Samuel Wilson who first described the disorder in 1912.
If you inherit the genetic fault in Wilson's disease, your body is not able to get rid of copper. Copper is a trace metal which is in many foods. You need tiny amounts of copper to remain healthy. Normally, the body gets rid of any excess copper. People with Wilson's disease cannot get rid of excess copper and so it builds up in the body, mainly in the liver, the brain, the layer at the front of the eye (called the cornea) and the kidneys.
Too much copper in the liver cells (the hepatocytes) is harmful and leads to liver damage. Damage to brain tissue mainly occurs in an area called the lenticular nucleus. Hence, Wilson's disease is sometimes also called hepatolenticular degeneration.
What causes Wilson's disease?
In Wilson's disease, a particular gene on chromosome 13 does not work. The gene is called ATP7B. This gene normally controls the way the liver cells get rid of excess copper. Normally, the liver cells pass out excess copper into the bile. If this process does not work then the copper builds up in liver cells. When the copper storage capacity of the liver cells is exhausted, the copper spills into the bloodstream and deposits in other parts of the body, mainly the brain.
How is Wilson's disease inherited?
Wilson's disease is an autosomal recessive disorder. This means that, in order to develop Wilson's disease, you need to inherit two abnormal ATP7B genes - one from your mother and one from your father.
If you inherit only one abnormal gene, you are called a carrier. Carriers do not have the disorder, as they have one normal gene which is enough to control the function of copper in the body. However, carriers can pass the abnormal gene on to their children. About 1 in 100 people are carriers of the ATP7B gene. When two people who carry the abnormal gene have a child, there is a:
- 1 in 4 chance that the child will have Wilson's disease (by inheriting the abnormal ATP7B gene from both parents).
- 2 in 4 chance that the child will not have Wilson's disease, but will be a carrier (by inheriting the abnormal ATP7B gene from one parent but the normal gene form the other parent).
- 1 in 4 chance that the child will not have Wilson's disease, and will not be a carrier (by inheriting the normal gene from both parents).
What are the symptoms and problems of Wilson's disease?
Although the genetic defect is present at birth, it takes years for copper to build up to the level where it is damaging. Symptoms typically start to develop between the ages of 6 and 20, most commonly in the teenage years. However, you can first develop symptoms in middle age.
Symptoms of liver problems often develop first. The toxic effect on the liver cells can cause inflammation of the liver (hepatitis) which may cause:
- Yellowing of the skin and the whites of the eyes (jaundice).
- Tummy (abdominal) pain.
- Episodes of being sick (vomiting).
If left untreated, damage to liver cells causes scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). Eventually, severe cirrhosis and liver failure develop in untreated cases, causing severe problems.
(Note: there are various causes of cirrhosis. Wilson's disease is a very rare cause of cirrhosis.)
As copper deposits in the brain it can cause various symptoms:
- An odd type of tremor in the arms.
- Slowness of movement.
- Difficulty with speech.
- Writing problems.
- Difficulty swallowing.
- An unsteady walk.
- Fits (seizures).
- Mood swings
- Inability to concentrate.
- Very argumentative and emotional behaviour in affected people, who may seem to have changed in personality.
If left untreated, the accumulation of copper in the brain can lead to:
- Severe muscular weakness.
- Severe rigidity.
Copper may build up in the layer at the front of the eye (called the cornea). This causes a characteristic feature called Kayser-Fleischer rings - a brownish pigmentation of the cornea.
Other features that may develop include:
- Kidney damage.
- Heart problems.
- Inflammation of the pancreas (pancreatitis).
- Menstrual problems.
- Repeated miscarriage in women.
- Premature 'thinning' of the bones (osteoporosis).
How is Wilson's disease diagnosed?
If Wilson's disease is suspected, it can be diagnosed by various tests:
- A blood test to measure caeruloplasmin. This is a protein that binds copper in the bloodstream. The level is low in nearly all people with Wilson's disease.
- Other blood tests may also be performed. These may be done to measure your copper levels and to test your kidney and liver function.
- A urine test to measure the amount of copper in the urine. This is usually tested on all the urine you produce over a 24-hour period. The amount is typically higher than normal.
- An examination of the layer at the front of the eye (called the cornea) by an optician (optometrist) or an eye specialist may show the Kayser-Fleischer rings if they have developed. (They are not present in all cases.)
- A small sample (biopsy) of the liver may be taken to look at under the microscope. This can show the excess copper in the liver and the extent of any scarring of the liver (cirrhosis). See separate leaflet called Liver Biopsy for more details.
- Your specialist may also request other tests - for example, an MRI scan of your brain and your kidneys.
If Wilson's disease is confirmed then your brothers and sisters should be checked to see if they have the condition. Brothers and sisters of a person with Wilson's disease have a 1 in 4 chance of also having the condition.
How is Wilson's disease treated?
It is essential to treat Wilson's disease. The earlier treatment is started, the better the chance of preventing long-term permanent damage to the liver or brain.
- Penicillamine is a medicine used to remove copper from the body (it is called a chelating agent). The penicillamine causes the excess copper from the body to be passed out in the urine. The dose may be reduced to a maintenance dose after about a year when the initial build-up of copper has been cleared.
- Trientine is an alternative to penicillamine. It too is a chelating agent and removes copper from the body.
- Zinc is an option in certain circumstances. Zinc works by blocking the gut from absorbing copper from food. Therefore, it does not clear excess copper from the body, but prevents any further build-up of copper. Zinc is much less likely than penicillamine or trientine to cause side-effects. It may be an option for people who are diagnosed at the very early stages of the disease and have no symptoms. Also, a switch to zinc may be an option for people who have been initially treated with penicillamine or trientine once the initial build-up of copper has been cleared from the body. Zinc may also be taken if you are pregnant.
Note: you need treatment for life. First, to clear the excess copper, and then to prevent future accumulation of copper. Failure to take medication can lead to a return to a build-up of copper, which can be serious - even fatal.
For the few people who do not respond to treatment with medication, or are diagnosed in the late stage of the disease with severe scarring of the liver (cirrhosis) or liver failure, a liver transplant may be an option. This can be life-saving. The long-term outlook after a liver transplant is usually very good.
Foods with a high concentration of copper generally should be avoided, at least in the first year of treatment when the excess copper is being cleared from the body. These include liver, chocolate, nuts, mushrooms and shellfish, especially lobster.
What is the outlook (prognosis)?
- If treatment is begun in the early stages of the disease, it usually works very well. You can expect a normal length and quality of life.
- However, without any treatment, Wilson's disease is usually fatal - typically, before the age of 40.
- If symptoms have developed before treatment has started, some of the symptoms improve with treatment, but some may remain permanently. For example, some of the brain symptoms are permanent once they develop. Your specialist will be able advise about which symptoms may go and which may be permanent, once treatment begins.
Further help & information
Further reading & references
- Management of Wilson’s disease; European Association for the Study of the Liver (2012)
- Wilson Disease; Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man (OMIM)
- Aggarwal A, Bhatt M; Update on Wilson disease. Int Rev Neurobiol. 2013;110:313-48. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-12-410502-7.00014-4.
- Purchase R; The treatment of Wilson's disease, a rare genetic disorder of copper metabolism. Sci Prog. 2013;96(Pt 1):19-32.
Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.
Dr Tim Kenny
Dr Colin Tidy
Dr Adrian Bonsall